BOSTON – Dwight Howard(notes) waited for nearly an hour in the stunned silence of the losing locker room, thinking long and hard about the timing of calling out Stan Van Gundy's failed policies. He has never been a young man of impulse, of speaking without the most careful of consideration. So yes, this made the measured and unemotional tone of his displeasure with Van Gundy devastating.
The Orlando Magic collapsed in the final minutes of Game 5, and maybe cost themselves a chance to reach the Eastern Conference finals. Howard is watching the ball go everywhere but where it ought to: Into the hands of the Magic's franchise center, its superstar.
Enough, Howard said.
Give me the ball.
"You've got a dominant player," Howard pleaded late Tuesday night. "Let him be dominant."
He's right. He needed to say it, and he needed to say it now. What's the use this summer? What's the use when this series is over? The final, frantic minutes were an indictment of these Magic, a stunning spiral of lobbed air balls and sprayed turnovers that let the flatlined Boston Celtics rise out of the rubble to steal a 92-88 Game 5 victory, and 3-2 control of this Eastern Conference semifinals.
The Magic appear fragile, scattered and unnerved. They lost on Big Baby Davis' stunning jumper in Game 4, and blew a 14 point fourth-quarter lead in Game 5, and now the Magic stagger home for an elimination game Thursday night.
Privately, the Celtics believe that Orlando's vulnerability late in games comes from a singular question that they've been unable to answer: Who is the go-to guy? Orlando missed eight straight shots to end the game, and that's what angers Howard the most: Why isn't that me?
"I have to get the ball," Howard said. "I don't think you are going to win a lot of games when your post player only gets 10 shots. It's tough to get yourself going and get a lot of shots without a lot of touches. We have to get better with that."
What Howard was trying to say was simple: Van Gundy has to get better with that. Howard had 12 points and 17 rebounds, just 10 shots on the night. In the fourth quarter, when it all slipped away, Howard had just two shots. He made them both, but it was far too little, and that's become far too much of a pattern here.
The Magic led 77-63 with eight and a half minutes left and 88-75 with 5:39, and still they squandered another lead in these playoffs. They've made it a habit. This is a character flaw of these Magic, and that loss of composure and direction returns to the coach. Shaquille O'Neal(notes) declared Van Gundy the "Master of Panic," for failures in past playoffs. Howard wouldn't go that far, but he appears done biting his lip when it comes to his diminished role in the offense.
He will go along with his coach's desire for him to be the immovable force on defense and on the boards, but no longer does it appear Howard will accept becoming an accidental tourist along the way to one more Magic meltdown. This was a disgraceful loss for Orlando, and it will linger as an indictment of the franchise.
Howard is so frustrated with the Magic's reliance on 3-pointers, the indifference on getting him the ball on the block, that two league sources familiar with his thinking say that it could soon cause Howard to question his future with the franchise.
After listening to him unload Tuesday night – his voice even, words measured – that shouldn't be a surprise. He has always been the polite, obliging aw-shucks kid, but this colossal collapse brought out a side never seen with Howard.
Even before he unloaded on too few plays called for him, too few touches, he delivered an unprovoked assault on Van Gundy's decision to pull the players responsible for constructing that double-digit lead late in the game. He wanted to see his coach stay longer with the bench of Tony Battie(notes) and Mickael Pietrus.
As Howard said, "The coaches have to recognize what's working on the floor and stick with it," he said. "When you're in a situation where guys got it going, you know everybody's moving the ball and the energy is up, you have to stick with … what works."
Howard even alluded to the fact that Doc Rivers turned to Stephon Marbury(notes) and Eddie House(notes) for fourth-quarter scoring that saved the Celtics in Games 2 and 5, respectively. "Their coach left the guys on the floor that got the job done. That's what championship teams do."
The Celtics have a magnificent defender on Howard, Kendrick Perkins(notes), one of the best in basketball. He insisted that, "They tried to get it to him. … They tried. I think the biggest thing with Dwight is he thrives off getting dunks. When he gets dunks early, he gets going."
Well, Howard never did get going in Game 5, and it left him seething after this night, and maybe this series, slipped away. Now, Howard has set the stage for a showdown with his coach. This is uncharted territory for this relationship, and now, something that Howard had kept to himself tumbled into the open.
Dwight Howard wants the ball, and he wants it with the season on the line in Game 6. He's the biggest, most devastating low-post force in the league, and enough is enough. If the Magic are going down in this series, he sure as hell doesn't want it going down with Rafer Alston(notes) throwing balls away, and Hedo Turkoglu(notes) and Rashard Lewis(notes) missing eight of nine 3-pointers in a Game 5.
"I just think that I have to be more aggressive, run … demand the ball," Howard said. And after all these lost possessions, lost trips down the floor, the biggest, baddest center in the sport finally did.
Howard called out his coach, and called for the ball. The season is on the line, and there's no more time to waste. Enough is enough, Howard barked. His voice never rose, but his message was unmistakable: He's the franchise star here, and he had better start getting the respect that comes with that from these Magic.
Dwight Howard thought long and hard and finally let the unspoken truth out of his mouth: Get me the ball, coach, and get the hell out of my way.